x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The tables have turned

This was not how it was supposed to be for Atletico Madrid and Villarreal.

Ernesto Valverde has proven ability but he is under pressure to turn Villarreal around.
Ernesto Valverde has proven ability but he is under pressure to turn Villarreal around.

This was not how it was supposed to be for Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. Spain's domestic league is just five games old, but the teams who finished fourth and fifth last season do not have a single league victory to their names. Both sit in the relegation zone and their poor form is not confined just to the domestic front.

Villarreal, who have excelled in European competition over the past five years, were beaten 2-0 at FC Salzburg in the Europa League on Thursday, while Atletico were hit by the same score line in their Champions League tie at Porto. With first-choice goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo at the Under 20 World Cup and reserve Roberto out with a thigh muscle injury, Atletico have been forced to play 18-year-old rookie custodian David de Gea. He was in line to make his league debut last night against promoted Real Zaragoza as Atletico hoped to shore up a leaking defence. With Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero, Atletico may have one of the best attacks, but they have conceded 13 goals in five games - more than any other Primera Liga club.

Villarreal host Espanyol today desperate for their first win. New coach Ernesto Valverde, who replaced Manuel Pellegrini after his departure to Real Madrid, is under pressure from fans weaned on success and unused to experiencing adversity. Valverde admits that Thursday's defeat to the Austrian side hurt them. "The defeat affects us psychologically, especially with a view to [today's] game," he said. "What is clear is we need to win that game come what may. Spirits are suffering after four defeats in a row and it's starting to get hard."

Valverde met owner Fernando Puig on Friday for talks, with Puig reaffirming his confidence in his coach. Puig is a stable, successful and patient man but is concerned at the slump because unlike rival clubs, Villarreal have no pressing financial issues. Roig has made financial stability such a priority that players love to join Villarreal because they pay well and on time. They are also the only top-flight club in Spain to have a reserve team in the second division.

The first team spent heavily on the Brazilian Nilmar, but he has found himself confined to the bench and has yet to score. Fellow forward Joseba Llorente has also failed to net any of the paltry four league goals Villarreal have mustered so far. In Marcos Senna and Joan Capdevila, Villarreal boast two proven, if ageing, Spanish internationals. Both are considered important enough to be called up to Vicente del Bosque's Spanish squad to face Armenia and Bosnia in World Cup qualifiers next week alongside Villarreal goalkeeper Diego Lopez. Villarreal have quality performers throughout, yet the loss of Pellegrini appears significant.

This time last season, Villarreal were second in the league behind Barcelona - the position in which they finished in 2007-08. Under Pellegrini's charge, they played some of the best football in Europe. Valverde is no novice, having coached with distinction at Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol and Olympiakos, whom he led to the Greek championship last season. He has the ability to turn Villarreal around, but will he have the time? Anything but victories over Espanyol and bottom of the table Xerez next week will be viewed as failure by an owner who has structured his club for success.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been ruled out of Real Madrid's match at Sevilla due to a sprained ankle he suffered in the 3-0 Champions League win over Marseille on Wednesday. Real midfielders Lassana Diarra and Fernando Gago, striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and defender Alvaro Arbeloa were also left out of the squad. amitten@thenational.ae Seville v Real Madrid, KO 11pm Aljazeer Sport +2